Chicago Zoning – A Colorful Experience 

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The City of Chicago has a rich and diverse history, one that is often reflected in the architecture of its buildings. To document and preserve the city’s architectural past, a comprehensive survey began in 1983 to identify and classify the 17,371 properties built before 1940. Completed in 1995, the Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS) uses a color-coded ranking system to information seekers determine a property’s date of construction, landmark status, historical and architectural significance, and more.

The CHRS ranking system uses seven color-coded categories, from red to blue, for Chicago’s historic buildings. For example, properties coded red are those considered to have the highest degree of architectural or historical significance on a state, local, or national level. Orange properties are considered potentially significant to the surrounding communities, while yellow properties include pre-1940s buildings that are relatively unaltered and part of a designated landmark district.

The remaining CHRS categories focus on the degree to which the exteriors of older buildings have been altered from their original appearance and the date of construction. For example, a property in a landmark district with exterior modifications would be coded yellow-green, green, or purple, depending on the building’s location and degree of alteration. Blue properties are those constructed after 1940 or those whose historical or architectural significance could not be determined.

By classifying Chicago’s properties according to their architectural and historical significance, the city’s Department of Planning and Development, Planning, Design Historic Preservation Division aimed to “increase architectural awareness in city neighborhoods, assist independent preservation efforts, and provide greater insight into city history” (CHRS). Designed as a resource for Chicago residents, community groups, planners, builders, and other interested parties, the CHRS is itself an important part of Chicago’s history and culture.

CHRS continues to have a significant impact on building and remodeling activities in the City of Chicago. In 2003, the City Council adopted a Demolition-Delay Ordinance, which implements an automatic 90-day hold on any demolition permit issued in the city. This ordinance applies to buildings designated as red or orange on the city’s zoning map, and gives the Department of Planning and Development time to consider any related preservation efforts or landmark designations. While the ordinance may cause construction delays in some cases, the city’s purpose is to ensure that important historic landmarks are not ineptly or prematurely demolished.

The Department has made it easy to find the city’s zoning map and each building’s ranking by publishing the full CHRS report online, as well as offering a helpful search tool on the city website. This tool allows anyone to search by architect name, address, the year constructed, a particular community, or architectural style. These digital resources are an important place to start when looking for information about Chicago’s diverse and notable properties.

At the same time, however, the CHRS has been criticized for its inability to account for the city’s post-1940s architectural heritage. Completed decades ago, the survey scope has not been updated to include many of the city’s prominent modern and postmodern architectural gems. This means that there are critical omissions, such as the work of Stanley Tigerman and Harry Weese, none of which appears on the survey. Another result is that unique and distinctive structures, like Chicago’s Prentice Women’s Hospital and Maternity Center completed in 1975, are often demolished to make way for even more modern facilities.

The CHRS survey has also been criticized for being unreliably subjective in some ways. For example, there are many instances where similar groups of properties were given a red or orange color rating in one area but given no color rating at all in another. The survey also omits buildings designated as City of Chicago Landmarks, which were and are listed in a separate database. Such lapses make it difficult to conduct an efficient search of property data citywide.

As calls to update the CHRS intensify, it may mean that change is on the way. But given the fact that the first survey took over ten years to complete, the best option now for those seeking comprehensive information on Chicago properties is to consult a lawyer with vast experience dealing with the many Chicago municipal agencies that touch Chicago’s buildings.

Jordan Matyas

Jordan Matyas

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Jordan Matyas is a lawyer, lobbyist, and Founder of 1818 Legal, an Illinois professional licensing defense law firm he created in 2014. With more than 18 years of experience practicing law, he represents clients in a wide range of legal matters, including professional license defense, administrative law, land use and zoning, and state, local, and municipal law.

Jordan received his Juris Doctor from the University of Illinois — Chicago School of Law and is a member of the Illinois Bar Association.